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Will the Smarter Sentencing Act Get a Vote?

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Sen. Grassley's floor statement on the Smarter Sentencing Act makes me think he knows, or at least suspects, that the Act will be coming up for a vote on the Senate floor.

Will it?

Only Harry Reid knows for sure.  A CQ Roll Call story (sorry, it's behind a paywall, so I cannot provide a link) seems to think it a good possibility, but there are, as ever with the Senate, complications.

The basics of the Roll Call story follow the break.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday [May 6] that a long-pending debate over criminal penalties could reach the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

Asked whether he intends to bring committee-approved sentencing legislation to the floor soon, Reid said he has been consulting with the bill's sponsor, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and "the answer is yes."

Durbin's bipartisan bill (S 1410), which is co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would cut mandatory minimum penalties for some drug crimes in half. It also would give judges more discretion to impose lighter sentences on drug defendants and allow crack cocaine offenders who were sentenced under a tough system that Congress abolished in 2010 to seek retroactive relief.

The bill also would create several mandatory minimum sentences that were added during the Judiciary Committee's markup of the legislation in January, when the panel voted 13-5 to advance the measure.

Lee told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday that he expects the bill to reach the floor during the Senate's current work period, which ends in late May, though he added that had "not yet heard a specific date."

Durbin sounded more cautious.

"We're working on it to see if we can possibly find an avenue," Durbin said.

Asked whether there are complications with bringing the bill to the floor, Durbin joked, "Look around you" -- an apparent reference to partisan disputes that have slowed votes on the Keystone XL pipeline and other subjects this week.

One possible complication for the sentencing bill is another bipartisan proposal that would similarly reduce criminal penalties and appears to have broader support among Republicans.

That bill (S 1675), sponsored Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., with the support of Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, avoids changing sentencing laws and instead would allow inmates who are already behind bars to be freed ahead of schedule if they complete rehabilitative programs. Cornyn and other Republicans have argued that the bill, which the Judiciary Committee approved 15-2 in March, would do more to protect public safety than the sentencing proposal.

While many Democrats see the two measures as complementary, Cornyn said in March that it would be a "problem" if Reid tried to pair the sentencing legislation with his early release proposal.

Durbin and other key Democrats, however, are insistent that the debate include the sentencing measure, noting that it already has five GOP co-sponsors besides Lee and is backed by a wide coalition of outside criminal justice advocacy groups, many of which argue that it is necessary if lawmakers are serious about cutting the size of the federal prison population.

Another potential complication is how Reid might approach the amendment process in a floor debate. Some outside advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed frustration when the Judiciary Committee added new mandatory minimum penalties to the sentencing measure in January, and they are similarly worried that a floor debate could further transform a proposal that is intended to reduce penalties into a bill that creates new ones.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have been increasingly critical of Reid limiting their amendments.

Yet another possible complication is opposition to the sentencing bill from some law enforcement officials, who argue that mandatory minimum penalties are a valuable tool for prosecutors and that reducing or eliminating them might compromise public safety.

The administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele M. Leonhart, expressed that viewpoint during an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

"Having been in law enforcement as an agent for 33 years, a Baltimore city police officer before that, I can tell you that for me and for the agents that work for DEA, mandatory minimums have been very important to our investigations," Leonhart said.
Whitehouse, a former prosecutor and member of the Judiciary Committee, did not dispute Leonhart's assessment but added that mandatory minimums also have "down sides."

"I think we have to recognize it was an important tool in the hands of law enforcement," Whitehouse said. "But at the same time, I think we also have to recognize from a cost-benefit equation, some people who ended up in prison for very lengthy terms for relatively minor offenses -- the effort wasn't serving the public."

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